I finally got down to New Orleans for a visit, city of levees, necropolises, music, food, and mixed races. I understand now why people get so emotional about it – it’s quite a place, unlike any other I know in the USA, mostly in a good way. It’s also a city that is so deeply formed by the geography and hydrology of the region that for a civil engineer cum geographer, it’s a no-brainer for a great vacation.
Outside our B&B there was a WWI memorial arch (first in the USA they say) that lists the men killed in action. Separate plaques for White Men and Colored. I think it was placed there because that neighborhood, Bywater, was the point of embarkation for the troop ships.
One thing that did surprise me about New Orleans was the racial segregation, or shall I say, lack of integration, visible everywhere. Living around and working in NYC, which is one of the most residentially segregated urban areas in the USA, I still experience a dizzying mix of people while commuting, during my workday downtown, and in many entertainment venues I frequent, but in NOLA, not at all. I wasn’t surprised that neighborhoods weren’t integrated (this is the USA), but I didn’t expect that when I went to a jazz club, everyone in the audience would be white, but it was almost that way. At times, I felt as if I were in a fancy college town. I’m not sure why it is that way, but I didn’t expect it.
As everyone says, there is music everywhere, inside and out. And these aren’t just any old street pick-up bands. The level of the musicianship is amazing! At the end of this post there is a brief video of this band doing their work for the crowd.
New Orleans has a unique American history of racial mixing: the French, then the Spanish, then the Anglos ran the place. The Creole culture of francophone colonials was not quite the same as the Anglo slave-owning society; there was a bit more nuance in the racial caste system as opposed to the “one drop” rule. Sometimes I see statements from people from Brazil and other creole-influenced cultures about how they have no racism in their culture – they’re creole – but it’s usually just an excuse. Nevertheless, there were historical differences, and the Anglo rule was more harsh.
Today, other cultures have been added to the mix, including a recent influx of Hispanic people, many from Mexico. I like this food truck’s moniker, a mash-up of Mexican, Palestinian, politics, and commercialism.
Levee is French for raised up. That’s the bank of the Mississippi, here reinforced with concrete on the river-facing side. The entire lower Mississippi is controlled and channeled, and this levee is upriver of the city, next to a plantation we visited, the Laura Plantation. The place was kept in creole hands for its entire working history as a family business, and the mansion is a functional and spare work of architecture. The excellent tour of the place emphasized its nature as a business, a family corporation to extract wealth from the land through the labor of slaves. None of that Gone with the Wind tripe.
New Orleans shows an admirable directness in labeling its manholes, and sometimes a fine aesthetic sense. Sometimes, they let the drainage just all hang out.
The southern latitude sometimes gives the lower density neighborhoods a lush, jungle atmosphere. We stayed in Bywater, downriver from the French Quarter, an area that was spared flooding because it is near the river. (More on that later.) The area boasts a type of architecture that is reminiscent of the Caribbean islands, and that also reminded me of Kerala, South India.
In the old city, the French Quarter, in Pirates Alley, there is this house where Faulkner wrote his first novel, and which is now a small and excellent literary bookstore. The picture on the right shows a house reputedly built to house an exiled Napoleon (he never arrived) and gives a view of a typical street in that area.
In the Warehouse District, where we spent our last afternoon, largely at the excellent Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the sidewalks often look like brick, but to my surprise, turned out to be blocks of wood, probably swamp cedar.
This book, by local scholar Richard Campanella, is an excellent treatment of the history of New Orleans that focuses on geography and demographics. The entire text and all the illustrations are available as individual PDF files online. He is at pains to emphasize that the city of New Orleans was founded, and remained for some time, completely above sea level. These days, one often hears expressions of wonder that anyone would be so stupid as to build a city below sea level. Well, it wasn’t, but large parts of it, most notoriously, the Lower 9th Ward, became lower than the sea after they were surrounded by levees and pumped out for development. The removal of water from the soil causes saturated ground to settle and compress, sometimes by as much as nine or ten feet.
This effect is seen in many places around the world: In Bangladesh, they refer to polder areas, after the Dutch name, where they have diked agricultural fields and de-watered them. As a result, the fields subside, and they grow less productive because they no longer are periodically flooded with life-giving nutrients from flood waters. When there is a very big flood, the dikes sometimes break, the fields become bathtubs, and there is no way to pump them out again because equipment is lacking. In Holland, where the practice of polder reclamation originated, they plan for this, but it costs a lot of money and requires constant engineering work. But in Holland, they have nowhere else to go!
Oh, and a word about those cemeteries. Historians tell us that the custom of above-ground burial was adopted when the Spanish took control of the city, not in response to soggy, water logged ground unsuitable for burial. Remember, the city was all several feet above sea level! Another reason for above-ground tombs is that is is an admirably efficient use of space – each tomb can hold many generations of a single family.
The image on the left below shows a typical river landscape in most of the world: the terrain drops as you approach the river, a standard river valley. In New Orleans, we are in a delta landscape, the end of the line for a huge drainage system (Drainage is Destiny!) and the landscape is reversed, which initially puzzled the French settlers. The river is constrained by natural levees that form when the channel periodically, and inevitably, overflows. The heavier sediment is deposited close to the original channel, forming, over many years, an elevated bank on either side. New Orleans was founded on one of these naturally elevated regions, and the riverside neighborhoods fared best during the disaster of Katrina.